Analyzing Pakistan's religious divides

When Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab Province, was assassinated by one of his body guards, we looked at some of the coverage. The big problem seemed to be the overuse of the term "moderate" without any explanation of what that meant. The problem was further compounded when "moderates" were praising the assassination. There was a story last week on NYTimes.com that did provide some additional details (and provoke some additional questions). "The Islam That Hard-Liners Hate," by Huma Imtiaz and Charlotte Buchen looks at the political significant of 2010's attacks on Sufi shrines. We learn that hard-line militants took responsibility for five attacks that killed 64 people. More people died in shrine attacks last year than in the previous five years combined.

The increase in attacks, and a direct effort to kill those who practice a more mystical brand of Islam, has torn the fabric of mainstream worship in Pakistan. But as worshipers continue to visit the Sufi shrines and many Sufi festivals continue in the face of threats, it also evidences the perseverance of Pakistan's more moderate brand of Islam.

"It's a very disturbing picture that militants have extended their targets to shrines, which are symbols of popular Islam in Pakistan and are widely visited," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. "However, I don't think the militants are succeeding -- thousands of people still visit the shrines despite these attacks."

Although there is no official data, the number of people who informally follow Sufi traditions is believed to be in the millions. They have long been condemned as un-Islamic by fundamentalist groups because they worship saints and perform music and dance.

The United States, meanwhile, sees Sufi Islam as a counter force to terrorism, and has helped promote it by giving more than $1.5 million since 2001 on the restoration and conservation of Sufi shrines in Pakistan.

There is quite a bit to discuss here, isn't there? I'm not sure how helpful it is to say that the number of people who informally follow Sufi traditions is believed to be in the millions. Earlier in the story we're told that Sufism is Pakistan's most popular brand of Islam. Well, Pakistan is an Islamic Republic with more than 184 million people. If it's the most popular "brand" of Islam (perhaps it's better to call it a movement within Islam), than certainly we would expect it to number in the millions. True, data is hard to come by, but that line is almost meaningless within the context of the story.

And the story as a whole doesn't really explain that one can visit a Sufi shrine or follow Sufi traditions and be otherwise indistinguishable from other Muslims at the mosque on Fridays. These lines aren't quite so bold as one might expect. Likewise, the Barelvi sect supports Sufi traditions. It's huge in Pakistan and yet many of its clerics supported the blasphemy laws that Taseer spoke against and, further, defended his assassination.

But it's that bit about how the U.S. Government is taking sides in a religious issue that I really wanted to highlight. I know that -- inside the beltway -- $1.5 million is small potatoes. But such direct funding of worship sites -- something you likely wouldn't see the feds coming close to doing inside our borders -- is very interesting, no? I would really like to know more about that. Why isn't there a First Amendment issue? Which agency provided those funds?

And if the U.S. is going to fund these worship sites, why is it so little? It seems to be the worst of all worlds -- getting involved in something so that Sufis are identified with American interests but not providing enough funding to make it worth their while. I don't know, maybe there's more to the story -- but that's what I'd like to see. Just a little bit more explanation.

And is it fair to say that the U.S. sees Sufi Islam as a counter force to terrorism? That might be true in Pakistan. But is it true in Saudi Arabia? Do you see the U.S. supporting Sufis there? No, the U.S. views Saudi Arabia as an ally and Saudi Arabia has an official policy against all non-Wahabi Muslims (along with Christians and Jews). So perhaps that could have been better explained for the context of this story.

Still, the story provides many helpful details that show some of those blurred lines that make Pakistani politics and religion so difficult to explain quickly:

"Militancy keeps on demanding sacrifices," Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst who says she is a descendant of a Sufi saint, said. "So if it's not targeting the enemy outside, it's targeting the enemy within."

In the eyes of some extremists, Sufi loyalists can be viewed as cohorts of the Pakistani government. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi both carry saint-like status because they are from prominent Sufi families that have been caretakers for shrines synonymous with the ruling elite. In turn, those in power often use such devoted followings as a tool for recruiting voters.

Pir Tayyab, a hard-line Deobandi cleric who has been associated with militant organizations, including the Pakistani Taliban, said that while it was acceptable to pray for a saint's soul at a shrine, it is forbidden to search for God's qualities in a saint.

"The singing and dancing that takes place at shrines is disrespectful," he said. However, he said, bombing a shrine is also unacceptable. "It is not correct to disrespect a grave or to remove someone from his grave."

I particularly appreciate the quotes that give a flavor for the views of clerics and analysts on various sides of the issue. More, please!

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